Friday, 29 June 2012

'The Ocean Dilemma' - a scientific tool

The Ocean Dilemma: C, C, C or C?

The Ocean dilemma is an element of the scientific method, so-named by me, which should be used in order to avoid drawing false conclusions.
Whenever presented with a Correlation, we should consider: does it indicate a Causation, a Consequence, or is it just a Coincidence?
(It is so-called because of all the ‘c’s, you c sea see) ;-)

The Ocean Dilemma can be used to avoid confirmation bias and coherence bias, which occur when one hypothesis is considered, and others are not. Bearing in mind that an observed correlation might be coincidence or consequence, rather than causation, wards the thinker away from making such an elementary error in their internal processes of appraisal.
The purpose of randomized, controlled trials (RCTs) is to exclude coincidence from the possibilities, but sometimes even they are not good enough to distinguish causation from consequence – a difference that must be identified by further, mechanistic analysis.

Case Study 1:
It was contemporarily presumed that hard knocks to the head caused brain conditions, which is why the journalist wrote this sentence:
“They revealed that Boogaard had a degenerative disease thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head”
“Usually symptoms of CTE appear when people are in their 30s or 40s, but Boogaard's case tells us the physiological changes may begin to take place long before that, Stern says”
This information provides us with something to work with, in order to distinguish between the ‘seas’ – if the damage precedes the behaviour, then it’s probably consequence rather than causation, but if the data’s not got good statistical significance, then we won’t be able to rule out the possibility of it being a coincidence.
"In his last two years of life, Boogaard did show some changes that might be consistent with what we see in CTE," says Stern. "But they also could just be from narcotic addiction - there's no way to decipher which came first or what caused what."
Ah - complications. These are typical of analyses - especially medical analyses. It might be imfeasible to know what caused what in Boogaard’s case, but aggregate data across populations can tell us how CTE works, by isolating it as a variable (controlling for all the others).
In this case study, the Ocean Dilemma, if considered by the earlier researchers, would have prevented the contemporary prejudice that knocks caused the brain conditions.  Further analysis showed that this assumption was not justified by the evidence.

Case Study 2:
The Ashanti peoples of West Africa hold a belief that the day of the week they’re born on will be a determinant of personality. This manifests to the extent that there are day-of-the-week-specific names, which reinforce people’s identities as a ‘Monday child’.
European descendants are likely to be familiar with this rhyme:
Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace;
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go;
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living;
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day,
Is bonny, and blithe, and good, and gay.
...except the Ashanti think theirs is true.
How can they tell whether it really is? Well, first they should consider the Ocean Dilemma.
If it’s causation, then other populations will show the same differences, independent of belief in the rhyme.
If it’s consequence, then there should be a better correlation amongst children named post-birth than pre-birth (because the parents would have had a chance to assess their personality – even though personality assessment in a baby is implausible anyway)
If it’s a coincidence, then there will be no correlation in populations that do not hold the beliefs about day of the week and personality.
If the research showed that personality-type varied according to specific beliefs about day-personality-determination, then that would be evidence that beliefs were correlated with personality-type rather than the days of the week themselves.
Assessment has since shown that this last case is the true one. Ashanti names do not cause behaviour – Ashanti beliefs do - we know this because we get negative predictive results in people who are not aware of name meanings e.g. Europeans who have Greek names.

Case Study 3:
Does dinner make a strong family, or does a strong family make dinner, or neither?
"We find that most of the association between family meals and teen well-being is due to other aspects of the family environment. Analyses that follow children over time lend even weaker evidence for causal effects of family meals on adolescent and young adult well-being"
“...ability to manage a regular family dinner is in part facilitated by family resources such as time and money, and in part a proxy for other family characteristics, including time together, closeness, and communication.”
This study appears to show that causation is not the case, and in fact consequence is more likely – ‘strong’ families have dinner together as a consequence of their being ‘strong’ – it wasn’t dining together that made them so.

If you’d like to read some more examples of cases in which the Ocean Dilemma helps, then read the ‘Box’ examples (in green) in this report, written partly by Ben Goldacre of the ‘Bad Science’ books fame:

Comment #6: -- GCSEs and O-levels

'GCSEs 'face axe' in exams overhaul'

Okay, let's take this one in chunks...
(I know it's ever-so-slightly not topical anymore, but i got busy and forgot to post it!)

a) 'GCSE' is just a name; 'O-level' is just a name; how will the changes actually effect the courses that pupils take?

- To Be Determined...

b) When Gove was at school, he did O-levels, and now he wants kids' qualifications to be called 'O-levels'. Nostalgia?

- Well he is in the Conservative Party, and emotionalistic hankering for the familiar is what conservatism's made of.

c) It was the Conservatives who changed to GCSEs in the first place. Acceptance of failure, or just Gove out-conservativing the other conservatives?

- I'm thinking it's probably the latter. Gove is the man who suggested that the taxpayers of the UK, despite 80% of them not being Royalists, should fork out £60,000,000 to buy a yacht and give it to the Queen as a symbol of austerity! The man's a nutcase. 'nuff said...

d) O-levels used to be 'academic' (which basically means 'written'); CSEs used to be practical. GCSE refers to any courses on this level.

- The GCSE system acknowledges practical efforts, whereas the O-level system subjugated people who did not do 'academic' subjects; plus it forced people to make a choice between them, too early in their education.

e) Gove wants to scrap the national curriculum altogether, exposing children to dangerously contorted subject matter.

- If there's one thing history has taught us about schools (it's that it's taught us many more than one!), it's that dangerous, superstitious movements will strain at the bit to seize them and infiltrate their practices with hokum, and, well... bullshit.
  The whole reason the Church of England wants to retain - nay, expand - their power over the UK's schools, is that children are more gullible than adults, and are therefore easier to indoctrinate. This is why two thirds of primary schools in England are 'Faith' (read: "cult") schools, but only a fifth of secondary schools are -- higher standards of teaching; more difficult to indoctrinate kids.
  This is also why businesses have  grasped at the chance to wield power over the new 'academies' -- not just quack organisations, but corporations as well - because they know an increasingly enlightened, internet-linked population is not likely to regard selfish, money-hoarding, resource-draining, community-undermining corporations in a favourable light. And they have to get their new underlings from somewhere!

f) Gove's new 'academy' schools are even worse than the crap schools they replaced, and are not limited to the curriculum - evidence that the curriculum is important in regulating course quality.

- Almost all of the 'new' academies are rehashes of previous schools, but with glitzy branding attached -- basically a PR job, with negligible effort put into making them any better at actually conveying quality information to the children who attend them.

g) The proposed English Baccalaureate undermines efforts in practical subjects, subjugating pupils who are, for example, dyslexic/dyscalculic, and are therefore much better at practical work.

- The current system acknowledges any GCSE pass achievement in school assessments. This means schools don't feel compelled to force non-'academically' inclined children to do 'academic' subjects (other than Maths and English).

h) Gove wants exam boards to be split between subjects - currently, they all do most subjects - in future, one subject each. Wasteful and disorganising, or effective specialisation? And where are the boards actually going to come from?

- This one sounds like the anomalously good idea, to me. The specialisation, and more importantly, the lack of competition, will free them to concentrate on producing quality papers. Whether the "race to the bottom" is a significant effect or not (the evidence on this subject is so pathetic that it might as well not exist), the mechanism will at least have been cut out of contention.
  Also, resources and personnel from the departments of each exam board can merge, providing examiners with a more even distribution of work, and enhancing efforts to improve examination standards. Examiners are usually teachers or retired teachers, who work from home, and have to relay information with the examination centres, regarding marks, and whether certain centres (schools -- i know - confusing!) have been over/under-marked. This would work better if there were only one examination centre with which to relay information.

i) An end to modules, so pupils have to take all their exams at once.

- This just ramping up pressure on the kids. Many fail or under-perform because of this, already. Courseworked subjects are least stressful, and get a less variable result for the pupils. The only trouble is - it's easier to cheat, with coursework you take home!
  Modules worked very well during my degree, thank you very much! Why end modules? Makes no sense. Subjects cover more than one sub-subject area, so multiple modules, each examined separately, seems obvious. Doesn't it? I can't even see how this idea would actually manifest!?

Hopefully, all of this will be moot - Gove's changes are still proposals, and could well be blocked. Let's hope so!

There are problems with the current system (and there always will be, but that's an immutable fact of life!), but only one of these ventures could possibly make it any better.

Exam boards should be non-profit; schools should all be private (as in public - i know, that's confusing too!); none of them should be specialised, thereby taking decisions out of the kids' hands; Science and languages teaching should start earlier, and occupy more time and funding; subjective subjects should be run as clubs, in breaks, and after school - not displacing valuable, worldview-determining information that all people should know; exercise, but not factionalising, competitive sport, should be regular and frequent; etc, etc, etc...

I could go on, in greater detail, but not here and now.

Fortunately for Welsh kids, it looks like they're keeping the GCSE system, regardless of what happens in England.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

History and Prehistory stuff (including Turing tributes) from the week 18-24/6/12

The 100th anniversary of Alan Turing's birth
The Science Museum's biography of Turing:
If you can get there, the Science Museum, London, UK, has a special exhibition up:

The British woman who gave birth to the world's first test tube baby has died aged 64
Lesley Brown made history on July 22, 1978 when her daughter Louise was born following pioneering in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment.

'Chemical analysis of pottery reveals first dairying in Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium BCE'
Using lipid biomarker and stable carbon isotope analysis, researchers examined preserved fatty acids held within the fabric of pottery found in present-day Libya, and found that half of the vessels had been used for processing dairy fats.
This means that humans have been using dairy products for at least seven thousand years, in Africa as well as Europe.

'Oldest confirmed cave art is a single red dot'
Nothing more than a dot of paint has been used to work out the age of what is now known to be the world's oldest discovered cave art - surpassing the French at 35000 years - to 40800 years old!

'Muscle reconstruction reveals how dinosaurs stood'
Analysis of dinosaurs' modern-day relatives - crocodiles, and birds - has informed models of how dinosaurs themselves were 'built'.
These have shown that ceratopsids, stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, and hadrosaurs, had different body shapes, and different gaits, that, of course, fit into the tracks they left.
"Although their skeletons were very similar, the team found that the muscles were different, showing the ornithischian dinosaurs had more diverse methods of locomotion than previously thought."

'Australians find huge mega-wombat graveyard'
From 2 million to 50000 years ago, Australia was grazed by gigantic marsupial Diprotodons, which were as big as a rhinoceros.
"Megafauna are thought to have evolved to such large sizes to cope with inhospitable climates and food scarcity, with fossils found in Australia of prehistoric emus, tree-dwelling crocodiles and carnivorous kangaroos."
Australia's such a weird place!

More spurious claims about the importance of/reasons for building Stonehenge

Not exactly prehistory, but a fossil T-Rex has been seized by the US State, because they think it was illegally removed from Mongolia.
The Mongolians are very possessive of their fossil artefacts - i'm not surprised they're taking it seriously. Then again, the guy spent a year of his life sticking it back together!